Note: My final summary listing of the 20 best albums of 2015 was developed via a six-part analytical tournament involving 32 contending albums. Complete narrative related to this final listing is accessible via the following links:
Greetings from beautiful downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania! I am here through Saturday for a conference, but will have some downtime today, so am going to try to work my way through the Sweet Sixteen survivors in the 2015 Album of the Year Tournament to boil us down to an Elite Eight. The links above will take you to the earlier rounds and introduction, if you’re jumping in midstream and want the back story. Shall we kick it? Ready, steady, go!
Bop English, Constant Bop vs Hey Colossus, Radio Static High: We typically listen to music in our apartment via the shuffle function of the Family iPod player, rather than playing whole albums through from beginning to end. (I do the latter on my headphones, during train or computer time, typically in the days after I first acquire something new). Bop English’s Constant Bop is what I think of a stealth album: we recognize, know, like and sing along with every one of its songs, but we also often have to go to the iPod for a reminder of exactly what we’re listening to. It’s an unobtrusive, enjoyable, important part of the sonic fabric of our lives in 2015 Chateau Smith, filled with catchy, likable songs. Hey Colossus’ latest album, on the other hand, is a bit more urgent and intense: they blast out of the speakers with such force and vigor and heft that it’s instantly obvious who you’re hearing. The best (and, not coincidentally, most accessible) tracks on Radio Static High do have serious ear-worm potential, but usually it’s the riffs and rolls that get stuck in my head, rather than the words and melodies. But that’s something of an accomplishment in its own right, and few bands can pull off that trick as well as Hey Colossus do. While both artists are excellent at what they do, in this case, I am going to select the album that offers me urgency over comfort, and a unique creative aesthetic over one anchored in a more traditional pop format. It won’t get as many dinnertime mix spins as Bop Constant, but as a standalone record, soup to nuts, Radio Static High is the stronger beast. Winner: Hey Colossus, Radio Static High.
Wire, Wire vs The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet: Well, this is an interesting pairing from two of the world’s most esteemed and influential post-punk bands. Wire have been a stop-start endeavor since their inception in 1976, with long fallow periods interrupted by bursts of extreme musical creativity. The Fall got going a year or two later, but Mark E. Smith has never stopped, aided and abetted by a seemingly ever-changing cast of band members — except in recent years, when he’s finally had a stable quintet for five albums in a row. These are both excellent albums, though Wire’s is, perhaps, a bit more comfortable and familiar, fitting in from a sonic standpoint with the best of their ’80s releases. While Mark E. Smith is instantly recognizable on vocals, Sub-Lingual Tablet actually offers some choice new spins on The Fall’s tried and true formula, offering choppy Beefheartisms alongside belching synth numbers, breezy near-jazz, and some thunderous riffage. I’m going to take the unexpected and somewhat uncomfortable in this contest, as The Fall’s new album is among their best, while Wire’s is simply a solid entry in a great catalog. Winner: The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet.
David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock vs Kate Pierson, Guitars and Microphones: Another interesting match-up from a pair of veteran band members with nearly a century’s worth of recording and performing experience between them, but also with relatively scant solo catalogs: this is Kate Pierson’s first solo studio disc, and David Gilmour’s fourth. Both albums are exceptionally well produced and filled with engaging, emotionally-intense songs; Gilmour offers an elegy for his fallen Pink Floyd comrade, Rick Wright, and a song about his son’s imprisonment for an act of social protest, while Pearson offers an empowerment ode to trans-gendered youth alongside other matters of the heart and soul. While I’d have been happier if these two discs had met other opponents in this round, since I think they’re both worthy of Elite Eight status, I’m going to go with Gilmour in this case, in recognition of him making a heavier lift on his own record than Pierson does; Guitars and Microphones is as much producer-songwriter Sia Furler’s triumph as it is Miss Kate’s. Plus, wow, it’s just so good to hear Gilmour’s voice and guitar again on a studio album all these years on. He’s one of my faves on both fronts. Winner: David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock.
Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion vs Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls: This is probably the most obscure and eclectic pairing in this round, featuring a pair of artists who aren’t likely on your radar screen if you’re not a fan of jazz or arty electronic music. The sounds on the records are diametrically opposed in many cases, with Thighpaulsandra offering long, sprawling, multi-phase epics (two cuts on the two-hour long album exceed the 20-minute mark), and Rudresh Mahanthappa presenting tighter, punchier jazz numbers. The alto sax man’s band are highly technically proficient from a textbook standpoint, while Thighpaulsandra’s crew are more inclined to Eno-esque found sounds and tortured deployment of traditional instruments. Both albums are richly rewarding, though Thighpaulsandra’s takes a bit more work on the part of the listener. Having made that investment, I see it as the greater of these two albums. I’m happy to have something so weird in the Elite Eight. Winner: Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion.
Sleaford Mods, Key Markets vs Girlpool, Before The World Was Big: The two-piece Sleaford Mods knocked off the two-piece Lightning Bolt in the first round, and here again they go head to head against another duo. The differences between these two, though, are striking: The Sleafords are caustic and all electronic, while Girlpool are gentle and mostly acoustic. Girlpool are very American (California sub-species), while Sleaford Mods are undeniably British (working class Northern strain), each bands accents and observations strongly evoking their home turf. Girlpool’s album is the duo’s long-playing debut, while Key Markets is the Mods’ eighth album. That longevity actually hurts Sleaford Mods a bit in this contest, as I actually feel like their preceding album, 2014’s Divide and Exit, is stronger than their latest offering. A trawl through their catalog also makes it clear that they pretty much are what they are: there’s not a lot of growth, expansion or diversity along the way. So in this contest, I’m going to pick youthful naivete over middle-aged cynicism. Plus, with The Fall having already advanced, we’re got the “Northern crap that talks back” contingent represented by the alpha band of the idiom, so this pick keeps the field eclectic. Winner: Girlpool, Before The World Was Big.
Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Shriekback, Without Real String or Fish: Singer-guitarist Carl Marsh’s return to the Shriekback fold in recent years has been a real shot in the arm for the estimable British group, fortifying singer-keyman Barry Andrews’ ooky spooky aquatic explorations with a bit of proper piss and vinegar, all in support of the highly wordy and literate lyrics that expect from the team. Marsh is heavily featured on Without Real String or Fish, making this one of the Shrieks’ strongest albums since their alt-dance ’80s heyday. Clutch are also firing on all cylinders on Psychic Warfare, a loosely structured, thematically linked song cycle that begins and ends with a world-weary, disbelieving narrator requesting and receiving an affidavit regarding mysterious ongoings in rural America. One of Clutch’s career strengths has been their ability to temper their in-your-face pure rock fury with some extraordinary, slow-build blues rock barn burners (think “Spacegrass” and “The Regulator” and “Abraham Lincoln,” to cite but a few examples), and they add two absolute classics of the form — “Our Lady of Electric Light” and “Son of Virginia” — to their catalog via their latest record. It’s a thrill ride from beginning to end, and that adrenaline rush carries it forward in this contest. Winner: Clutch, Psychic Warfare.
Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People vs Bring Me The Horizon, That’s The Spirit: As noted in the first round review, Ezra Furman’s latest album finds him fronting a band again, and that’s as it should be: while his songs are strong, and he’s quite the charismatic character, his material really rings out most strongly in a full instrumental setting. The Boy-Friends (his band) do yeoman service throughout Perpetual Motion People, ably framing his material in an eclectically entertaining variety of styles and sounds, with music hall jazz rubbing shoulders with country gospel, and Modern Lovers-style rock aiding and abetting herky-jerky indie fare. Through all the settings, though, Furman shines clear and bright, and this album really is one of those rare ones where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts, becoming somehow transcendent in its earnest pursuit of kinetic musical pleasure. Bring Me The Horizon, to their own credit, also do a good job of mixing it up a bit on That’s The Spirit, tempering the core pop-metal at its musical heart with dubstep and emo flavors, deftly avoiding the monochrome tendencies to which similar bands often fall prey. If there’s one thing that chafes with me when assessing the British sextet, it’s that the approach on their admittedly big and accessible latest record seems a little bit forced when viewed through the lens of their back catalog; some — perhaps in the band, but more likely in some corporate front office — saw pop crossover potential, and produced the hell out of the record to achieve that goal. Based on early reviews, I think they’re likely to be highly successful, but the clinical calculation should be a little less obvious to the listener. So I’m going to go with the exuberant, quirky and perky little guy in this contest, which also allows me to have Chicago (Furman’s home) in the Elite Eight mix. Hey, what’s the point of being the home team if it doesn’t give you some advantage? Winner: Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People.
Gangrene, You Disgust Me vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat: The first song released from Napalm Death’s Apex Predator — Easy Meat was called “Cesspits.” Gangrene’s You Disgust Me opens with a spoken word piece called “The Filth.” Needless to say,neither act spends a lot of time looking at and exploring the nicer things in life on their latest discs. Gangrene’s record has some of the best backing tracks that I’ve heard on on a hip hop album in recent years, a deliciously oozing stew that perfectly matches its off-putting lyrical concerns. Core members Oh No! and The Alchemist offer distinctive flow, aided and abetted by a collection of guest artists, first and foremost the late great Sean Price, whose last recorded moments appear herein. Napalm Death have only one guest on their latest album — John Bilbo Cook, credited with “token guitar solo” — but the core four and long-time producer Russ Russell deploy the studio to admirable effect, providing sonic variety in the maelstrom of blast beats with interesting vocal and instrumental fills, creating a cataclysmic soundscape that’s nearly over-whelming in its intensity. Apex Predator — Easy Meat is lyrically and musically cut from similar cloth to its two preceding albums, but in each case and at each step, the Napalms have improved on the formula, creatively, commercially, and thematically. Napalm Death are enough of an institution in the metal world that they could succeed by just going through the motions, but the ever restless quartet have never settled for such an approach, and it’s awe-inspiring to see a group this deep into their career working so hard to challenge their listeners and themselves. No contest here, when all is said and done. Winner: Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat.
And there you have it: we’ve now culled 32 very worthy albums down to eight of glittering greatness, poised and ready for the next round. Our next installment with boil it down to a Final Four, at which point (in keeping with my long-standing practices in these tournaments), I will shift to a round robin format to select the winner. Each of the four finalists will be pitted head-to-head against the other three records, with two points available in each mini-tourney: winner gets two, loser gets zero, and ties provide one point to each. The record with the most posts in the round robin will be named the Album of the Year for 2015. How exciting!
But that’s still a couple of reports away. For now, we have to set the stage for the Elite Eight. Taking the winners above and pushing them through a random number table to establish pairings, we end up with the following four contests that will be documented in the next installment of this series. Stay tuned as the tension builds — mainly for me in having to pick between these records while attempting to justify my choices!
Thighpaulsandra, The Golden Communion vs Napalm Death, Apex Predator — Easy Meat
The Fall, Sub-Lingual Tablet vs David Gilmour, Rattle That Lock
Girlpool, Before The World Was Big vs Ezra Furman, Perpetual Motion People
Clutch, Psychic Warfare vs Hey Colossus, Radio Static High